Why I Like Retro Tech

I'm interested in retro tech that either allowed humans to more easily express themselves, or allowed more humans easily to express themselves (by lowering the cost of doing so), thereby advancing the cultural and intellectual development of the species.

In an era in which we're accustomed to the most mundane things being heavily digitally mediated (have you ever watched someone using their smartphone's selfie cam + display as a mirror?), electromechanical devices are direct, tactile, and visceral: there is an intimate connection between the human actuating the device and the device producing something.

Retro tech devices have stories to tell. They can be passed down in your family. You can ask “Imagine what could have been typed on this typewriter,” or “Imagine who might have played this piano.” Digital devices are short-lived: a 10-year useful life is rare, and only collectors own 30+ year old devices. And even so, it is hard to get excited about “Wow, imagine who might have saved a file on this USB key.” Whoever that was, they didn’t have the intimate connection that (say) Hemingway had to his typewriter, or Gershwin to his piano.

Retro tech devices will survive the fall and presumed rebirth of civilization. They are easy to understand and fix. A typewriter's mechanical design makes its function manifest. Electronic devices, in contrast, are opaque: open up a computer and you have no clue as to how it works. Of course, if civilization actually does fall, it will be awhile before we’re worried about reviving retro tech devices, but still.

Retro tech devices both shed light on advances in manufacturing and promote further advances. Typewriters have hundreds of custom-shaped moving parts that must be cast and assembled just so. Decades elapsed between the first working prototype and a version that could be economically mass produced. Once they could be mass produced, they could be used to write technical documents about how to make better typewriters.

The artifacts produced by retro tech can usually be appreciated without mediation. A guitar conveys sound directly to your ear by compressing and rarefying the air between it and you. A typewriter produces visible glyphs on tangible cellulose. Even Polaroid photos, whose technology is not straightforward to re-create, can be experienced directly and without mediation. In contrast, if you have an image file but no computer, or an MP3 file but no player, the content is inaccessible to you.

Retro technologies often capture the tension between art and engineering. They greatly lowered the cost of producing or consuming media, inviting many more people to do so, but often at the expense of quality and (as purists frequently protested) artistic integrity. Audio cassettes had poorer sound fidelity than reel-to-reel magnetic tape, but they were more rugged and player/recorders could be made inexpensively, enabling a new mass market for music and an explosion of self-recording by nonprofessionals.  VHS cassette recordings were far inferior to TV broadcasts and laughably inferior to film, but they made it possible for consumers to record not only TV shows and movies but also their own work, kickstarting an independent filmmaking industry. Typewriters afforded none of the artistic sensibility that publishers brought to printing and engraving, but they made it possible (when combined with other retro-technologies such as spirit duplicators) for individuals to become their own publishers.